Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Where No Man Has Gone Before

In which we meet Captain James R. Kirk and the valiant crew of the Enterprise as they venture beyond the great barrier at the edge of the galaxy.

The single most striking thing about this, the very first episode starring Captain Kirk, the second pilot film for the series, the episode meant to sell this whole venture as a series, is the way it begins: a chess game between Kirk and his alien science officer. No grandiose introductions to the vessel and its mission. No tedious assemblage of a team and shots of a captain getting his first command. No origin story at all. We’re simply thrust right into the action. This is the story of a captain and his crew and we learn everything we need to know about the ship, its mission and the dynamics between crew members by watching the story unfold. Even the opening title sequence lacks the traditional “These are the voyages” narration. We’re dropped into the future, onto a starship exploring the outer fringes of the galaxy, with almost no explanations for anything. Technology is taken for granted. When Kirk orders the Valiant’s stray recorder be brought on board, we cut to the transporter room and watch the machine appear on the platform. There’s no expository dialogue about dematerialization, no explanation given or necessary. We see it happen, we’re shown, not told, in the way the best stories are always handled. Just do it and trust the audience to figure it out.

Another striking element is the story itself and the overarching themes brought up. This is man versus god, or, more specifically, a man with godlike powers. It’s a theme Roddenberry will bludgeon us with over the decades to come, including the TNG pilot (where we spend a ton of time putting the crew together and learning their backstories before tangling with a being gifted with godlike powers). Roddenberry consistently presents humanity, raw and vicious as it can sometimes be, as ultimately preferable over omniscient hyperadvanced species. Maybe, somewhat ironically, he’s illustrating a verse from the  Bible (King James version): For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.  We also get arguments about the merits of compassion and emotion, concluding with Kirk’s comment that there may be “hope” for Spock after all. Emotion, compassion, are vital elements, not just of a commander, but of a human being. Gary Mitchell’s use of superpowers robbed him of the capacity to identify with ordinary people, stripped him of his very humanity. As we learn over and over again in science fiction, with great power comes great responsibility.

Other elements that popped out at me, particularly with the benefit of seeing what happens in the future, are little things. Spock’s quick conclusion that Mitchell should be dumped off on a nearby planet (eerily reminiscent of young Spock’s actions in the latest Trek movie). The mention of the blonde lab tech Kirk almost married (which immediately brings to mind Carol Marcus). The ubiquitous Eddie Paskey.

Stylistically, the show is still finding its ground. The uniforms are noticeably different, in color, collar, and decoration. The bridge retains elements of the almost primitive look it had in the first pilot, The Cage. The phaser props seem too Flash Gordon-y, the communicator needlessly chunky, highlighting what a terrific job the production team did with redesigning things when the series fully launched itself. Also missing is the emotional core that McCoy provided. Dr. Piper is just another member of the staff, not the trusted advisor and deeply humanistic conscience Kirk comes to rely on. Spock is almost himself here, but still barking orders and acting a lot more, well, emotional. But Kirk is pretty much Kirk. Except, of course, that his middle initial is wrong on his tombstone. Makes me wonder if that got digitally changed in the “remastered” version.

Alexander Courage’s music here is mostly too melodramatic, but there are a few classic moments, especially the slow build when Mitchell starts reading faster and faster. His music here also demonstrates how much Fred Steiner contributed to the feel of the show starting with the very next episode, The Corbomite Maneuver. Sure, Courage wrote that bongo-inflected main theme and both Gerald Fried and Sol Kaplan wrote some of the most iconic moments for episodes much later, but Steiner is the true architect of the Star Trek sound and it’s noticeably absent here.

After the “too cerebral” pilot, Roddenberry delivered an episode that still manages to give its characters a lot of thoughtful dialogue while also upping the action quotient. In an earlier review of the latest Star Trek movie, a commenter pooh-pooh’ed my opinion because the original Trek was “thoughtful, provocative, while this was eye-candy.” This episode, Where No Man Has Gone Before, proves to be an excellent example of that very point. This is science fiction filled with ideas while at the same time giving us slam bang action. I loved the new Trek movie because it was tons of fun to watch, a rollicking good time no doubt enriched merely due to its heritage. I loved Where No Man Has Gone Before because it was a great story that made me want to find out more about these characters, this ship and this universe. And, thankfully, we’ve been given more for some 45 years and counting. 

Saturday, March 20, 2010


This was a ten minute writing exercise.

A trip out of state, to a whole different state of mind. We flew from Iowa to Massachusetts for a week with my cousins. They lived on Cape Cod, on the ocean, where the salt air stung my nostrils and the water, even in July, seemed almost too cold to enjoy. Most of my five cousins were much older. One, much younger. The closest in age, Scott, was just enough older to be past the interests of a kid like me. He was nearly in junior high. My brother was young, maybe three, and not always much fun. So there was down time, solo time, even during a summer vacation trip, and I was drawn inexorably to the television.

My (then) current obsession, Lost in Space, was also airing way out in Massachusetts. But they were at a different point in the series than we'd seen back home. And when I wrote a postcard to Ronnie Dickey, a note to tell him about my trip, it only said this: "They show Lost in Space out here! Penny has short hair on the show. And the Robot is played by Bob May!" These were all astonishing facts. Penny was a long-haired girl in the episodes we'd been watching back home, and with no listing in the credits at the end of the show, we had no idea who stood inside the shell of the Robot. But the TV Guide in Massachusetts gave me the answer: Bob May. And I passed along this precious information to my friend Ronnie, secure in the knowledge that he would find it just as fascinating as I.

It was all about the TV and the space show of the moment. We'd already seen every episode of Star Trek twice or, in some cases, three times, and were thrilled when the adventures of the Robinson family expanded our space-related play.

Ronnie never told me his thoughts about the postcard. But a year or so later, I noticed it tacked onto the corkboard above his desk.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Here, Basche!

This was a ten-minute writing exercise I did today.

Basche had a minibike.

That's what we called him, Basche. I'd moved to this school mid-semester and everyone already knew everyone else. I knew no one. On the playground I watched as Danny Kuiper tossed the football and then shouted, "Here, Basche! Here, Basche!" Inside, when the teacher asked if there was anyone in particular I wanted to have sit at my table, I said, "Basche." It may have been then that I found out his first name was David, but it may have been much later.

Danny Kuiper, who also sat at my table, was fast and wiry, with tight curls covering his head. Basche was tall, laconic and grounded. And someone we gravitated toward.

Basche cared about trucks and taught me to prefer Peterbilts to Macks. And when I visited his house I got to ride on the back of his minibike, tearing through the lot next door, playing Starsky and Hutch in pursuit of bad guys. Somehow, even though I had dark, Starsky-like hair and Basche a more blonde Hutch look, I had to be Hutch, because everyone knew Starsky was cooler. Just like when, years earlier, Danny Underwood and I played Emergency, and Danny had light hair, like Roy, and I had dark hair, like Johnny, but I still had to be Roy, because everyone knew Johnny was cooler.

As to the other Danny, Danny Kuiper, he remained more distant, another of Basche's sidekicks. Long after I'd moved away and lost contact with everyone at that school, I read in the paper that Danny had died, struck by lightning while working with his father on the roof of his house. I can still hear him shouting, trying to get Basche to throw him the football.

Image from www.scwiklr.com/junk/

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lucky Charms

Hey look! A short short story of mine is in the Unluck of the Irish anthology. The story I contributed is called Lucky Charms. Yes, it features a leprechaun.

UPDATE 3/17/11
It's been a year since the anthology came out, so I thought I'd go ahead and share the full story here....


“You can take the end of that rainbow and shove it up your arse,” the little green bastard said.

Not what I was expecting. I mean, I’d followed the instructions, handed down from time immemorial, and now I wanted my pot of freakin’ gold. How hard was it supposed to be? Fortunately, I like to be prepared. So I pulled out my .45.

“I didn’t want it to have to be this way,” I said. “I always thought it was a natural thing. You find the guy, he gives you the gold. But if you’re going to be difficult about this, well, I can be difficult, too.”
“Oh, whoop de do,” he said, rolling his eyes. “A gun. I’m a bloody leprechaun. You really think bullets will have any effect on me?”
He stuck out his tongue and did a stupid little dance.
“Listen,” I said, “I don’t want to cause trouble, I just want what’s coming to me. I got a lot of heat on me right now, and I really need the money. So just hand it over.”
“Go screw yourself.”
“How about this,” I said. “I’m a reasonable guy. We can split it. I’ll take, you know, half.”
He stared at me.
He turned, dropped his pants and mooned me.
“Fine,” I said. Then I shot the little bastard in the head. Huh. Whaddaya know. Leprechauns have green blood.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Corbomite Maneuver

Busy photographing stars in a part of space where no ship has gone before, the Enterprise encounters a strange cube which blocks their path. Later, the cube’s owner, Balok of the mile-wide starship Fesarius, engages Captain Kirk in a battle of wits to determine the fate of both their ships.

This early episode is truly iconic. From Fred Steiner’s score to McCoy’s “What am I, a doctor or a moon shuttle conductor?” to Spock’s “Fascinating,” all the elements are here. And this is only the third episode filmed – really the first “regular” episode, since the first episodes filmed were the two pilots (The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before). Kirk gets to strut around sweaty and shirtless at the opening and Spock gets to flaunt – and be shamed by –his reliance on logic. McCoy bursts in with concern for a single crewman’s health and Kirk gets to show how humans prevail over their primitive instincts and barbaric past.

Crewman Bailey really rubbed me the wrong way this time. He’s frequently struck deaf, and dumb by the wonders in front of him. Really, get this guy off the bridge. The first time he daydreamed a mistake, fine, but the second and third and forth times? Send him down to swab the decks before he gets everyone killed. I guess McCoy’s rejoinders to Kirk about “promoting him too fast” were supposed to make me feel like Kirk has a lot of faith in Bailey, but Bailey doesn’t seem to warrant that kind of trust.

And speaking of McCoy’s rejoinders, it seemed really odd that he gave Kirk this kind of lecture when they were potentially minutes away from their own destruction. Despite Balok’s warning to the humans to make things straight with their deities, the crew seems to just keep meandering on about their business. Yeoman Rand, it turns out, was farting around, using a phaser to make a pot of coffee, while the doomsday countdown clock ticked away. She waltzed onto the bridge mere moments after the sigh-of-relief from avoiding certain death. Is Rand’s deity housework?

And speaking of deities, here’s an interesting mention. Balok (voiced at first by Ted “Lurch” Cassidy) assumes the crew of the “United Earth Ship” Enterprise seek comfort in a deity or deities. No real response from the crew on that matter, but a nice nod to the idea that aliens won’t share our belief systems – and that even among us, belief systems differ. The alien nature of Balok seems to be the crux of the episode. It’s all about encountering something beyond our ken. Kirk makes a speech about aliens, that we’ve encountered them before and usually found them to be non-threatening. So the ship & crew at this point seem to be quite human-centric. Spock is their only alien, and his salient trait is hinted at being curiosity. Which is interesting, in light of what I remember from the back cover of the first Blish novelization.

The first books I ever remember owning were Star Trek books, bought with money I got from my grandfather. He’d purchased a savings bond for me when I was born and it was given to me on my (tenth?) birthday. And I chose to immediately cash it in and blow the proceeds on Star Trek books – a couple of James Blish novelizations and David Gerrold’s World of Star Trek & Trouble with Tribbles. On the back of the first novelization, Spock is described as being completely unemotional and alien except for his curiosity. This edict must have gotten lost as Spock developed.

Balok remains an interesting character. Interacting with the humans at first through his threatening puppet, Balok turns out to be a friendly and rather childlike example of what would become a Star Trek trope, the advanced alien testing our primitive species. His love of Tranya, his favorite drink, still reverberates. In college, my friend Stephen Meyers and I concocted our own recipe for Tranya and consumed it often, always with a nod to Balok’s laugh.

The cocktail culture seems to be flourishing in the future, as plenty of drinks are served, most of them assumed to be alcoholic. None of your wimpy TNG synthohol here. And conversation is important. The plot, the danger to the ship, lingers as discussions are held. This is a nice melding of the “too cerebral” vision from Roddenberry’s first pilot with the “action-packed” adventure of the second. It’s slowly, deliberately paced, with many shots of the bridge that are just a bit different from the standard ones the show eventually fell into. The bridge itself is still a bit of a work in progress, with viewscreens that don’t always contain a graphic and Uhura in the wrong colored outfit (and cursed to say “Hailing frequencies open” about 700 times). But it’s our bridge, the one we remember, albeit with a few more extras milling around than we got as the series progressed.

The future itself is still a little loose. Kirk makes a reference to something happening two centuries ago that seems a little advanced for placing in our present day. I think they were still under the impression that they were farther away in time from us than the 23rd century that became the official line.

So we’re still meeting this ship, this crew, this universe. And it feels reasonably adult, even forty years on. This episode takes place almost exclusively on the Enterprise and, fittingly, the Enterprise is Kirk’s babe of the week. He talks about his responsibility to her and we sense the truth of that statement. This is Kirk’s ship. And it’s quickly become ours, too.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

CHiPs Haiku

Ponch puts on his shades
He pops the clutch and he thinks
Thank god I'm not Jon.

On morning patrol
Motorcycles taste asphalt
Tonight, the disco

Jon and that fat guy
you know, the comic relief
still wish they were Ponch

And one more, based on the true story of me seeing Ponch in real life with his young son outside of a 7/11. I used artistic license to change the setting. Because 7/11 has too many syllables.

He wore a fringed vest

CHiPs star Erik Estrada
at the gas station

I know. The beauty of these poems brought you to tears. I know. I understand.

And now, more:

Glint on sunglasses / His gloved hands grip the throttle / Ponch back in action

Ponch and Jon compete / at love and motorcycles / and disco contests 

Jon watches pavement / blurred beneath his spinning wheels / while Ponch pulls ahead

If you are sick of / reading all my CHiPs haiku / you're a Jon not Ponch

Poor Grossman and Sarge / The disco babes ignore them / We can't all be Ponch

The damn kids today / wouldn't know Ponch from Fonzie / these aren't happy days

Into the sunset/ shadows stretch from spinning wheels / Ponch & Jon ride home

For Roy and Johnny / Days do not end with dancing / Unlike Ponch and Jon

Update, January 27, 2011. Here are a couple more.

Climbing the onramp / Traffic on the Four Oh Five / Ponch back in action

Old lady speeding / Menace to society / Ponch will flag her down


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Grandma's Mummified Hand

A Very Short Story

We sent Grandma’s mummified hand to Mike in California. Certified, return receipt requested.

We can see him coming home from work, seeing the notice on his door, getting excited, maybe curious, what would be sent certified to him? We can see him driving to the post office at the very first opportune moment, but Mike will not open the package until he gets home. That’s Mike’s way.

He’ll unwrap it slowly in his all-too-meticulous fashion and he’ll see Grandma’s mummified hand and the little note we wrote and then he’ll rush to the bathroom to spew and maybe next time he’ll think twice before jumping bail.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dagger of the Mind

The Enterprise visits a penal colony where “enlightened” reform techniques turn out to be - surprise! – crazy mind control torture. James “The only good human is a dead human!” Gregory stars as Dr. Adams, the head of the colony. Morgan Woodward is the psychotic Dr. Van Gelder with Marianna Hill as slightly cross-eyed babe of the week Dr. Helen Noel, ship’s psychiatrist.

Only eleven episodes into production and so much is already established. Kirk’s reliance on Spock and McCoy. Spock’s knowing look when Kirk sees Helen for the first time – and again when he discovers them embracing. The nerve pinch. The mind meld.

Actually, this is the first time we see the mind meld and, knowing what a trope it becomes, it’s interesting to see how much it’s built up before hand, and how differently it’s performed. In this outing, Spock avoids the side of the nose and the forehead, for the most part, and concentrates his fingers and energies nearer the outside of Van Gelder’s face . Spock hovers, slowly rotates around Van Gelder during the procedure, gets close and really feels it. He speaks of “we.” The ritual it becomes is yet to be and it’s an interesting glimpse at the evolution of what will become just another plot device in Spock’s belt.

You can also see, already, the blistering appeal of Spock. Nimoy is never less than mesmerizing. He’s us, but not-us. And he’s definitely a younger, less mature, more emotional Spock than we later come to expect. He’s certainly not the smiling, shouting, angry Spock of the earliest episodes, but he’s not yet the blank master of stoicism he’ll become.

And he’s a badass. When he beams down to the prison, he first checks on the knocked-out prison guy (nicely empathetic of him) then starts smacking control panels !wham! with his bare hands. Flip open the controls, flip some switches and voila, force field inactivated. Spock gets it done. Then its straight to Kirk’s holding cell where he gives the look as Kirk smooches on Helen.

Ah, Kirk. He’s already stronger than most men. “Van Gelder was crawling on the floor begging for mercy” but Kirk and his iron will hold back his mind like no other man can do. Yes.

In other news, they celebrate Christmas on the Enterprise. In the science lab. Which is an interesting comment about the conflict between religion and science in the 23rd century. And, speaking of that, is it the 23rd century yet? Two references are made to the idea that humans have been trying to deal with criminals for 40 centuries. So where does that place the Enterprise on the timeline?

When Dr. Adams finally gets exposed to his own creation, the mind-emptying neural neutralizer, he ends up dying, faced with the prospect of his own loneliness. Kirk feels the Doctor’s pain after having endured the device himself. His looks to Spock and McCoy at episode’s end show that he’s already counting on them as his conscience, as his real friends, the ones who’ll never desert him. This early in the run, we’ve already got a foreshadowing of Kirk’s “I’ve always known I would die alone” line from Star Trek V.

From a soundtrack nerd perspective, I found it distracting in only the way I could, to hear the cut and paste spotting of familiar Trek music. But it was also delightful, like being reacquainted with an old friend, to hear it all in context again, not divorced from the screen which is the way I’m used to hearing it nowadays.

Love the crazy "sunrise behind gigantic hand of Apollo about to crush a dove" symbol on the penal colony jackets. And I love the fact that the penal colony has humongous air ducts at waist level running throughout the place. 

The title itself comes from Macbeth. 

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw. 

A mind, it seems, is a terrible thing to waste.